It feels like the Golden Gophers have been playing must-win games for weeks. Their bubble predicament hasn’t quite been that severe, since they still have a chance to make the tournament despite several losses in the last few weeks, but it has been close. Wins over Indiana, Northwestern, Iowa, and Penn State were obviously must-wins, and would have been season killers if they had been losses. Each of those wins gave the Gophers a bit of breathing room so that there would still be a shot at redemption later on. Later on begins Thursday in Indianapolis at the Big Ten Tournament.
Why do the Gophers need redemption you ask? Compared to preseason expectations, the Gophers have had a successful season no matter what happens in Indianapolis. They were picked anywhere between ninth and last in the Big Ten, and despite a new coach, a new system, gaping holes in their roster and an untimely injury to their best player, the Gophers cobbled together the same Big Ten record and a better tournament seed than last season’s much more talented team. My guess is that no one associated with the team is satisfied with that though. There are too many “what could have beens.” The Gophers lost four games by one possession or in overtime, and by four points to Nebraska. A few favorable bounces, and a favorable call or two, would have the Gophers securely in the NCAA tournament. Instead they are playing for their meaningful postseason lives.
If the season ended today, the Gophers would probably be on the wrong side of the bubble. Arguments could be made that they are more deserving than some teams projected to be in the tournament. In the 68 team NCAA tournament era, there isn’t much sympathy for major conference teams that get left at home on Selection Sunday. If the Gophers only beat Penn State on Thursday, your favorite lucky coin and your favorite bracketologist will have the same odds of predicting the Gophers post-season future. If the Gophers beat Penn State and Wisconsin, they will be in the tournament, even if they’ll appear in one of those annoying play-in games in Dayton.
Needing two wins to comfortably make the tournament isn’t ideal, but at least the Gophers face some potentially beatable opponents. The Gophers have two wins over Penn State. They won on the road in the closing moments in January, despite playing some awful basketball. On Sunday they blew out the Nittany Lions despite some long stretches of lackadaisical play. The Gophers also have a blow-out win over Wisconsin, who would be their second round opponent. Minnesota obviously lost to the Badgers in Madison by eight points despite playing some uninspired and sloppy basketball. The Gophers won’t be uninspired against the Badgers with the season on the line
The Gophers are 3-1 against their likely Big Ten Tournament opponents because the Nittany Lions and Badgers aren’t very good at defense. The Gophers themselves aren’t going to stop anyone defensively, so to win, they need opponents that are even more disinterested in slowing down opponents. Minnesota had their best and fourth best offensive performances of the Big Ten season against Wisconsin and Penn State. Despite several unforced turnovers in their loss at Wisconsin, the Gophers still scored well over a point per possession. There is no guarantee the offense shows up again like that in Indianapolis, but at least it has against these teams before. If the offense does show up, expect Andre Hollins to be its driving force. The junior guard has played nine post-season games with the Gophers, and scored at least 20 points in six of them.
After 30 games of exceeding expectations, the Gophers have put themselves in position to make a run to the NCAA tournament. With some timely scoring in the next few days, those expectations could be shattered.